FWS issues draft habitat conservation plan for Northeast wind farm

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A 70-megawatt wind farm in northwest Maryland would be the first in the Northeast to receive an approved habitat conservation plan under a draft proposal unveiled today by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency is seeking comment on an environmental assessment for Constellation Energy’s 28-turbine Criterion Wind Project in Oakland, which last summer became Maryland’s first operating wind farm

The draft plan includes steps to minimize and mitigate harm to the federally endangered Indiana bat — which is threatened by collisions with turbines or from barotrauma, in which sudden drops in air pressure near spinning blades cause internal hemorrhaging.

“As it progresses, the service is responsible and committed to making sure our nation’s wildlife is protected,” said Genevieve LaRouche, supervisor for the agency’s Chesapeake Bay office.

The proposal is one of more than a dozen by wind developers to avoid or minimize harm to federally protected birds and bats. The Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act make it a crime to disturb any of hundreds of avian species, though prosecutions for violations have been rare.

A separate 100-turbine wind farm in Ohio has also proposed a habitat conservation plan for Indiana bats, and a much larger habitat conservation plan seeks protections for the endangered whooping crane, interior least tern and piping plover along a 200-mile-wide corridor from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada (Land Letter, July 21, 2011).

There are about 15 habitat conservation plans that have been issued or are under review for wind energy projects across the country, said Meagan Racey, a spokeswoman for FWS in Hadley, Mass.

While operations at Criterion could kill Indiana bats, incidental take is allowed if steps are taken to avoid, minimize and mitigate harm.

In Criterion’s case, turbines would be turned parallel to air flow when wind speeds are low between sunset and sunrise in late summer and early fall, when bats are most likely to fly. The adjustment is expected to save about half the bats while sacrificing only a small amount of power, the agency said.

The company would also build gates to protect cave-dwelling bats in Maryland, eastern Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The permit would allow up to 14 Indiana bats to be harmed or killed during the 21-year project duration.

Indiana bats, which weigh only as much as three pennies, were listed as endangered in 1967 because people were disturbing and even killing them in caves as they hibernated. Other threats include cave commercialization, loss of summer habitat, pesticides and other contaminants, and white-nose syndrome, according to federal biologists.

Wind turbines are also a threat. The North Allegheny Wind facility in Pennsylvania killed one Indiana bat in 2011, while the Fowler Ridge wind farm in Benton County, Ind., killed two others in 2009 and 2010.